In Detroit, presidential election years are a special kind of busy at Fellowship Chapel, United Church of Christ. Presidential hopefuls have been invited to speak at a candidate forum there on Tuesday, March 3, a week before the Michigan primary election – or, more likely, to send spokespersons, since that's the evening of "Super Tuesday" elections in 14 other states.
"It will be an opportunity for folks to come out and hear about what's on the primary ballot and hear from a number of the candidates' teams," said Fellowship Chapel member Yvette Anderson – "just because we want people to participate, to know the issues and have some education."
It's one of a series of such events the church is hosting at least monthly in 2020 for members and neighbors, often in cooperation with community partners.
The forums are not just about candidates and ballot issues. Some are about voting itself. A 2018 "promote the vote" law created new opportunities, such as "no-reason absentee voting" and same-day registration opportunities – and these still need to be explained to some voters, Anderson said.
The church is also urging its community to take part in two critical things that have everything to do with voice and vote: the redrawing of legislative districts, and the 2020 census.
- At a Feb. 12 workshop, the church partnered with a Michigan group called Voters Not Politicians to help people apply to become members of a commission that will redraw the state's districts. It will include people from both major political parties and who identify with neither. Application forms and notaries were on hand. "The packing and stacking that has occurred as a result of the ways lines have been drawn make it difficult to get legislation passed that would be sensitive to communities that are underserved, in areas like education, criminal justice reform, health care and early childhood education," Anderson said.
- Those district lines – to be redrawn after 2020 – are just one reason the church is promoting this year's U.S. census. Representation in Congress, and much more, depends on this once-a-decade count. "What your community loses by not being counted in the census – hospitals, child care, school lunches – it's amazing," Anderson said. She said Fellowship Chapel plans regular census reminders "to keep it at the forefront of people's minds so they don't fail to participate."
Anderson, a Fellowship Chapel Board member who works in government relations with Wayne County Community College, describes herself as "passionate about social justice" – one reason she feels voter education is important.
"People are so consumed and concerned with things that are impacting their daily lives – child care, low wages, trying to make ends meet, housing, health care – that it's often difficult to understand how their daily lives are impacted by politics," she said. "It can be intimidating and overwhelming. Oftentimes people start to check out of the political process." She said information offered on the church's "neutral ground" can help people "take bite-size pieces and understand how their participation can be effective in changing some of the ills that they may have been experiencing."
Nationally, the UCC has worked for years, and especially in presidential election years, to help churches and members know what they can do – in legal, nonpartisan ways – to educate and empower voters. Videos and downloadable toolkits are among the resources available at the Our Faith, Our Vote web page. National UCC leaders on Feb. 17 issued a pastoral letter on the importance of voting.
"Elections matter – whether local, state or national," said Sandy Sorensen, director of the UCC's office in Washington, D.C. "2020 is a pivotal election year. The challenges before our communities, our nation and our world are immense and urgent. Our vote is our voice – it is our way to participate in the common good and to help shape the way we approach the policy challenges before us. Faith voices are an essential and unique voice in the electoral process."